Coronavirus & Education

Letter to the President: Reopening rural schools needs special consideration amid Covid-19

By Anonymous Education Specialist 8 May 2020

Teacher unions say that many school principals report operating with a drastically reduced staff, mainly caused by the non-replacement of those who were granted concessions to work from home. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Denvor de Wee) MC-RuralEducation-Letter

Government has indicated that it is considering the phased re-opening of schools from June. The author of this open letter works closely with educators and principals in Limpopo and has intimate experience of their lived experiences. She pleads with the president to help these rural schools.

Dear President Ramaphosa

I live near the Kruger National Park and have been working in rural schools around that area for the past six years. I have helped with teacher training in schools and sat in on many classes while working with teachers in their classrooms. I have seen the amazing potential in our rural learners, admired the perseverance of their teachers who cope with a huge amount of daily challenges and listened to the problems principals and schools face. At these schools, I have also used some of the worst pit toilets I have ever seen despite having travelled extensively through Africa by road.

I have sat in a prayer meeting with staff at a school where the headmaster was called to a disciplinary hearing because he would not sign off the new school hall that was never built.

The provincial department of education who built him a new school (after many years of him writing letters about his old school building falling apart), insisted he sign off for a school hall that was included in the school plans but never built. He said this would be dishonest and that he could not sign off a building that was not built. So he got accused of insubordination and summoned for the disciplinary hearing.

I arrived at his school the day he was at the hearing to find his staff all in a prayer meeting. They invited me to join and we fervently prayed together for the principal’s safety and a fair hearing. I later heard it was postponed. I was angry and saddened. I asked the deputy principal why they did not report the issue and take it further instead of accepting this obvious unfairness in the face of corruption. The deputy principal begged me to let it be, insisting that if they tried to take it up with the department, they would probably lose any future funding. 

I sat with a principal of a school in my home where he was almost in tears telling me about science kits he had to sign off for his school that contained packets of Jelly Tots one can buy at any store for around R10 and yet the price included in the issue of these kits for each packet of Jelly Tots was around R80. He retired at the end of that year, having no more energy to deal with the daily corruption he and his staff face. 

I listened to more than one teacher tell me of how they had applied for promotion posts only to be informed that someone else who had come forward with “more” had got the job. It turned out the “more” was not related to skill or qualifications or experience, but to a financial amount that was offered in return for the post. Again I was asked to please not say anything for fear of funding being affected. 

At one particular school, I visit often there are not enough classrooms, so the Grade 4 teacher I work with has 129 learners in her class. The space between herself standing at the blackboard and the first row of learners is less than a metre. I usually sit outside the classroom when I visit, near the door, as there is simply no other space. There are similar numbers for the Grade 5, 6 and 7 classes and the only learners who the teachers can meaningfully engage with are those in the first row. There is simply no way to move beyond that physically.

In that same school, there are 80 learners in one of the Grade R classes. The teacher and her assistant try their best, but it is mostly chaos with some learners getting to sit at desks while others need to make do on the floor. There is no carpet. Handing out books and pencils to each child takes so long it leaves little time to use them before the tedious and exhausting process of collecting them must begin.

Some children were lying on the floor trying to get in a nap when I visited in February; others were crying to go home and others were merrily playing with their friends. The toilet break and opportunity to go buy something from the spaza ladies was the closest to real playtime and children skipped or ran along in those times. There is not really any equipment for children to play on or with. 

This same school, however, was “given” a mathematics lab last year, nicely set up for 30 learners. As all classes from Grades 4-7 have more than 90 learners, you can imagine this does not really benefit them as they have to leave 60 learners unattended while the teacher tries to work with 30 learners in the maths lab. The maths lab in effect also cost the school one of their valuable classrooms. So little learning actually happens in that lab now.

The organisation I am contracted by appealed to the provincial government to allow them to first build a classroom for use as the maths lab rather than taking one of the few existing ones. Unfortunately, the “tender” that had been won for the maths labs had to be rolled out immediately, as is the case with so many things that get forced on these schools I work in. 

 

I watch at 9:30 when it is break and those huge buckets of pap and some milk or sauce of some sort are delivered to each classroom with the metal plates for each learner. There is a noticeable change in many learners’ ability to concentrate after this meal. It makes me anxious to think what these learners must be going through at home these few weeks without that daily meal and parents who probably have no income currently due to the situation.

 

Two years ago, some service supplier started installing electronic whiteboards in nearly all the schools. The teachers asked me to help them to use the boards. Only 10 tablets were issued for each school with the whiteboards and the software provided expired a few months after the boards were installed, so these too have become another white elephant. I visited one class to see the teacher proudly “using” his whiteboard. He had stuck a poster on the whiteboard that he was teaching from. 

My teachers also patiently work with the learners through “free” government workbooks they are forced to use that in some cases contain conceptually incorrect examples and exercises. Inquiries to the provincial head of the subject I specialise in fell on deaf ears and no one seems to know why these schools have to keep enforcing these poor-quality workbooks that the more affluent schools simply discard in favour of textbooks, because they can.

In these rural schools, however, these workbooks are like the Bible. If the district officials visit and you have not done every single page and exercise required, it negatively affects your performance. When I have shown my teachers errors in the workbook and suggested they omit those exercises or examples with their learners, they are afraid to in case they get into trouble with their head of department or district official. 

Mr President, I love working with these schools as they are very special people and give me hope for our country (the people and not the school conditions) but if in all these years these schools have not been assisted to get better toilets, learning material, enough classrooms and better facilities for foundation phase learners, how will they be safe for return on 1 June?

On the other hand, I have realised that at least at the schools, many of the learners get at least one meal a day with the school feeding scheme. I watch at 9:30 when it is break and those huge buckets of pap and some milk or sauce of some sort are delivered to each classroom with the metal plates for each learner. There is a noticeable change in many learners’ ability to concentrate after this meal. It makes me anxious to think what these learners must be going through at home these few weeks without that daily meal and parents who probably have no income currently due to the situation. 

 

How do I engage with the Department of Education on this? The Department that has not helped these schools in the past five years, but rather forced their own agenda on them.

 

I am also concerned about the education that is continuing in homes in most urban areas compared to what has been offered to these learners in the rural areas. I have never seen a primary school child in any of these schools with a cellphone. Very few of them have access to data even if their parents may have a phone. Data does not fill your stomach or keep you alive, so it is not a primary commodity in these areas currently. Yet it has become the currency of learning in our country for this time, it seems.

I even emailed UNICEF to see if they could help us get some printed material to the learners in these schools to work through in this time and they informed me that:

“UNICEF’s priority now with the Department of Basic Education is the deployment of online, app based, radio and TV broadcast learning to reach as many children as possible, working with partners such as 2Enable, with whom we have a long history. Please try engaging with the Department of Basic Education on monitoring learning for children within the 2Enable platform, or contact 2Enable directly through their website.”

How do I engage with the Department of Education on this? The Department that has not helped these schools in the past five years, but rather forced their own agenda on them. Unfortunately, the current education offerings for children while at home does not help our rural children much. Few have access to televisions and electricity has also become scarce since many parents have not been earning an income for more than five weeks now, so buying electricity is low on the priority list when you need to eat. 

So my appeal to you, Mr President, is please consider these rural areas in this decision-making process. You keep saying you want to protect them from Covid-19 but what have you and your government done to protect them over basic necessities such as water, hygiene, medical care and education over the past few years? What are you doing now to ensure that the children who rely on the daily feeding scheme are being fed? Or are able to keep learning? What are you doing to ensure that their parents will be able to access some sort of income in the next few months? Or that their schools will be safe places? Safe from corruption and Covid. 

 Please, Mr President, help these rural schools, not just through Covid. DM/MC

The author of this letter has asked to not be identified, the main reason being the very real possibility that the schools the author works with may be targeted. Maverick Citizen does know the identity of the author.

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